Eating less meat will save the planet, study says

An argument for vegetarianism. [David Blackwell / Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Agriculture and climate change: the role of the new CAP.

SPECIAL REPORT / The overconsumption of meat will inevitably push global temperatures to dangerous levels, a recent study has warned, urging reluctant governments to take action.

The world’s rapidly expanding population is posing a huge challenge to farmers. A report published in November 2015 by Chatham House, and the Glasgow University Media Group, examined the interconnection between meat and dairy consumption with climate change.

Nearly one-third of the world’s cultivated land is being used to grow animal feed. In the EU alone, 45% of wheat production is used for this purpose, with 30% of overall use met by imports.

On a global level, problems associated with rising meat consumption are only expected to get worse.

“Global consumption of meat is forecast to increase 76% on recent levels by mid-century. A ‘protein transition’ is playing out across the developing world: as incomes rise, consumption of meat is increasing,” says the Chatham House report. While demand for meat in the developed world has reached a plateau, consumption there has stabilised at a level which is considered “excessive”, the report warns.

This will make it more difficult to meet the UN goal of limiting global temperature increases below 2°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

“This is not sustainable. A growing global population cannot converge on developed-country levels of meat consumption without huge social and environmental cost […] Livestock production is often a highly inefficient use of scarce land and water. It is a principal driver of deforestation, habitat destruction and species loss,” the report reads.

America is the world champion

The world champion of meat consumption is the United States. Every American consumes about 250g of meat per day on average while an Indian will eat less than 10g.

In Europe, Germany finds itself topping the European table in terms of meat consumption—along with Denmark, Spain and Portugal. According to a report by the Federal Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, 83% of respondents said they eat meat several times a week.

>>Read: Study: Germans still love their meat and eat plenty of it

Adrian Bebb, a senior Food Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, told EURACTIV: “The mass production of meat impacts upon the lives of people around the world, on the environment, biodiversity and the climate. Sustainable alternatives exist and need to be given higher priority on the public agenda. What we eat is no longer a private matter.”

How agriculture affects climate change

Farming contributes to 10% of the total EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, mainly by producing two powerful greenhouse gases: Methane (CH4) – from livestock digestion processes and stored animal manure, and nitrous oxide (N2O) – from organic and mineral nitrogen fertilisers.

“Agriculture is a significant source of greenhouse gases; but it can also play an important role in helping to fight climate change, by acting as a sink and storing carbon in the soil organic matter and in biomass,” an EU Commission Spokesperson told EURACTIV.

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the consumption of meat and dairy products contributed close to 25% of the environmental impacts from the total consumption of all goods and services in the EU-27.

For example, producing 1kg of beef requires 617 liters of water, a measurement known as the blue water footprint.

As far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned, the production of livestock and fodder globally generates more than 3 billion tonnes each of carbon dioxide equivalent.

In 2014, according to Eurostat data, Germany, Spain, France and the United Kingdom had the highest number of livestock. The largest number of pigs was recorded in Germany and Spain (28.3 and 26.6 million heads respectively), cows in France (19.3 million heads) and sheep (23.0 million heads) in the United Kingdom.

Governments called to action

Governments have so far been reluctant to act for fear of a consumer and public opinion backlash.

>>Read: EU emissions limits for agricultural gases face uncertain future

But the Chatham House report says that risk may have been overestimated. It recommends building the case for government intervention with awareness-raising campaigns at national level linking environmental goals with other policy objectives such as managing healthcare costs.

“Messages should focus on the co-benefits of reduced consumption,” the report stresses. Engaging with “mainstream media” and “non-partisan experts such as scientists” is seen as key in this respect.

On the policy level, the report says shifting diets will require “comprehensive strategies” combining the promotion of non-meat alternatives at supermakets with other initiatives to prop up the price of meat.

These include the “removal of direct or indirect subsidies to the livestock sector”, subsidising plant-based alternatives, or “interventions to increase the price of meat and other unsustainable products, such as a carbon tax.”

“Government capacity to influence diets is expanding and publics are becoming increasingly accepting of the role of government in this area,” the report concludes.

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EU Agencies

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Think Tanks

  • Chatham House and Glasgow Media Group: Meat Atlas

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